The music master and the lady instructress

The 18th-century may appear to be a very male heavy world. Adam Smith, the Hunter Brothers, Captain Cook, Mozart, Haydn, George Washington, Napoleon, Robert Burns, Casanova – these are all the common figures that may spring to mind when we think of 18th-century history. Some very lucky women such as Austen and Wollstonecraft have made it into the history books but when it comes to female musicians in the 18th-century, there is very little public knowledge or discourse. I almost hear you groaning that old adage – ‘but women didn’t perform music publically in the 18th-century, so why would we know about them?’ and perhaps even: ‘Women weren’t musically educated so there were no female teachers’. Sorry folks – this simply isn’t true and here is why.

music mater and student

To have a famous music master was fashionable and sign of status and wealth for the elite. But for the rest of upper and middle class society music education with a female instructress had the potential to save young women from the lecherous clutches of a male music master. There is plenty of evidence in memoirs and conduct books that women did teach music, particularly mother’s teaching their daughters. The Mother’s Book written by Lydia Maria Child, written as important and considered advice states:

If a child discovered a decided talent for any accomplishment, I would cultivate it, if my income would possibly allow of it. Everything we add to our knowledge, adds to our means of usefulness. If a girl have a decided taste for drawing for example, and it be encouraged, it is a pleasant resource which will make her home agreeable, and lessen the desire for company and amusements: if she marry, it will enable her to tach her children without the expense of a master; if she live unmarried, she may gain a livelihood teaching he art she at first learned as a mere gratification for taste. The same thing may be said of music, and a variety of other things not generally deemed necessary in education’ (Child, 1832: 136).

She goes onto note that if her daughter requested music education, providing that her father was in agreement that the expense should be invested, it would be with the proviso that she would educate her other siblings and this in turn would prepare their daughter for her role as a mother or future teacher of the art (1832: 137). This is very practical and economic advice, where educating a daughter in music is not just an investment in her social elevation but could be used as a mode of professional employment or the future professional employment of her children.

2 women

Novelist Mary Brunton become a proficient musician under her mother’s instruction and indeed music is a major topic of conversation throughout her novel Discipline (Brunton, 1832: 5). The music education the protagonist of the novel received in her youth turns out to be her saving grace. After being forced to leave her position as a governess, she  ‘applies to every music shop and makes known her qualifications at every boarding school’ before finding employment with Mrs Boswell, whose only interest is that her daughter learn piano and singing (Brunton, 1815: 306).

I already discussed in a previous post about the scandals of the music master, from whom parents were frequently warned to protect their daughters and while this may not have deterred some families from employing a male music master, there was plenty of advice such as that written by Anna Letitia Barbauld, who strongly recommended in her Memoirs that young ladies should have their ‘education super-intended by a well-bred woman’ (Barbauld, 1826: 22).


So it may not have been fashionable to have a female teacher, but there were plenty out there in the 18th century who were in employment and who also taught their own children. But it is only now that these women are being recognised for their influence and importance in the discourse of music history and the shaping of music education.


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